Workplace Woes, Part 3: High Employee Turnover
Why we may feel anxiety in a volatile workplace.
Posted May 15, 2018
The following question comes to me from a reader interested in whether his feelings of anxiety in a turbulent workplace are normal. It follows Workplace Woes Part 1, in which another reader asked about how to best socialize at work as an introvert, and Part 2, in which a reader asks for advice convincing her colleagues of her point of view. The question is edited for clarity and published with permission:
I work for a corporation that has high turnover: When I first started, a woman I was working with was suddenly let go with no explanation. I took it as a one-off; maybe she didn't get along with her manager, or something happened between them to suddenly be let go right before the holiday season. A few months later, another person was let go with no explanation, again. And recently, just a few more months later, two people from the same team were terminated in the exact same way. I worked closely with one of them. I enjoyed working with this colleague and he was someone I could count on. He must have had no idea that he was about to be let go. I can't help but put myself in his shoes and think what that conversation was like, and what it would be like to receive that sort of news, especially in someone's later years, because he was actively saving for retirement. I don't have any of his personal information so I don't know how to reach him or to ask how he's doing. I am worried about job security (I've just purchased a home and my wife is pregnant with our first child), and the fact that anyone in the company could be let go at a moment's notice without any forewarning. I asked a colleague how he was feeling, and his response was "business is business, they did what was best for the company". Given this, I'm wondering if my feelings are normal or if I should grow thicker skin. Any advice?
Thanks for writing in. It sounds like you are in a pretty volatile workplace. High turnover in any environment is not good: It leads to distrust among colleagues and management, little company loyalty, plummeting employee satisfaction, and an overall atmosphere of anxiety and uncertainty which culminates in - you guessed it - lower productivity. At the end of the day, having employees feel uncertain about their value and security within a company usually leads to dollars lost, not gained.
The emotions you are feeling are perfectly normal, given the circumstances. You are identifying with someone you've built a relationship with and likely formed an attachment to. Perhaps you saw value in his work and felt as though you could rely on him, in which case you've lost a trusted resource who helped you navigate the working world and do well at your own job. Perhaps you enjoyed working with your colleague, or admired him in some way, and so you've suddenly lost a friend.
In either case, there's a lot to unpack, psychologically:
Firstly, someone you knew and formed a bond with has suddenly had his life shifted. You may be experiencing distress because, if you've ever found yourself in a similar situation, you are empathizing with him. According to recent research, individuals who are "nice", or who score high in measures of empathy, are more capable of putting themselves in another person's shoes, as you've noted you've done. Because people who are highly empathic are more capable than the average person at mentalizing another person's situation, they can feel a similar sense of negative emotion if the other person is going through a difficult time. You may be in distress because you are literally placing yourself in your colleague's shoes. This shouldn't necessarily be looked at negatively, as your ability to empathize means you have great capacity for compassion, so long as you can be constructive about the negative emotions you feel.
Secondly, a person you've built a friendly relationship with has suddenly been thrust out of your life by no decision of your own, and, it sounds like, without a chance for you to say goodbye. As humans, we have a 'need to belong'; we form bonds with people because these bonds are essential to our survival. We are sensitive to our acceptance and rejection by others, and to however many bonds we hold, so losing a friendship with a colleague and having the emotional resources you've invested in that friendship suddenly 'go to waste', so to say, from an evolutionary perspective, can be distressing: you now have one less person in your working and personal life to rely on. Beyond the fact that your social circle has now diminished, human beings generally organize our lives by narratives - stories with a beginning, middle and an end. Having no control over the ending of this narrative would certainly be distressing. Is there anything you can do - perhaps reaching out to HR and asking them to send him your contact details - that will help you regain a sense of control?
Thirdly, sudden termination is a noted pattern in your workplace. Without knowing why your colleagues have been terminated, you may be feeling anxious around making the same mistakes they have made. Because their mistakes are not known to you, however, you may now fear that anything you do could be interpreted as a 'mistake', and so you may be finding it difficult to know whether or not you are doing well at work. Because this is the third time your colleagues' employment has been terminated in a short while, you may also be feeling anxious as you likely cannot rely on the people you work with who may, too, suddenly be gone. This is why distrust is rife within companies with high turnover rates; you simply do not know whether your manager may suddenly choose to terminate your employment, and you have no way of telling who is next to go amongst colleagues and friends. According to research, the best way to move forward and lessen these feelings of anxiety is to speak to your manager, who can mitigate the effects of turnover be imposing certain processes, so that you can more clearly be aware of whether or not you are doing well by these clearly defined boundaries. Asking for more detailed feedback about your work may be difficult at first, but it will lessen the amount of anxiety you feel: At the very least, if your manager's feedback is that you are not performing well, you will at least have the ability to improve and demonstrate that you are capable of doing so (while also updating your resume).
Lastly, you are currently in a life stage filled with change: Apart from becoming a father (congratulations!) and taking on the emotional and financial responsibility that role will hold, you have recently made a large financial decision to purchase a home, so your feelings of anxiety are entirely dependent on the security of your current employment. Not knowing what that security is, as per my point above, yet needing to in order to insure some stability in your future would certainly help the anxiety lessen. I would advise speaking to a financial planner and creating a financial contingency plan: For instance, realistically assess how long it would take you to get a new job, if ever terminated, and start saving to hold you over for that approximate period of time. Further, consider if you could rent out the basement of your new home and for how much, and whether that would help cover the cost of your mortgage if you ever fall on hard times.
As per 'growing thicker skin' and your colleague's remarks, generally speaking, unless someone owns the goose that lays golden eggs, the chances that the sudden termination of a colleague without any communicated reason would be taken in stride are quite low. Remember, people have defense mechanisms that are put in place to help us cope and protect us from certain feelings, healthy or not. This may have just been your colleague's way of coping with her emotions when reacting to the news.
In sum, there's no need to question your own feelings in this case, as they seem to be circumstantial, but they may be your mind's way of telling you to do something constructive with them - find a better ending and create a good back-up plan to help you feel more secure. Good luck!
Tanaka, T., Yamamoto, T., & Haruno, M. (2017). Brain response patterns to economic inequity predict present and future depression indices. Nature Human Behaviour, 1(10), 748.